From the beach shores that border its lake, to the mountain peaks that overlook its share of the Great Rift Valley, if you visit you’ll soon see why Malawi was the country I spent the longest amount of days in throughout my time in Africa.
Like most things that tend to happen to me on my travels, most of it happened my chance, or accident. I have to admit that my research and preparation into the Africa trip…well let’s just say for the most part I was winging it! Distances between places, places of interest to visit…these are all things I had taken a bit of a laid back attitude towards. I had known the route I wanted to take from Cape Town to Nairobi, and a few landmarks to aim for; Vic Falls, Lake Malawi, Zanzibar. I knew the bus links and train links to get me where I needed to get to…but it was the Malawi area, getting there from Zambia, and getting from there to Tanzania, that was a bit cloudy; but now as I look back, this was what made my time in Malawi all that more interesting.
For starters, the journey getting me to Lilongwe…well everything just went wrong. From Livingstone to Lusaka the bus was delayed by hours, and from Lusaka to Lilongwe I was put on the wrong bus. Instead of the bus that would take us all the way across the border and on to Lilongwe, I was put on the bus that terminated in Chipata, a few odd kilometres from the border!
“What do you mean this bus doesn’t go any further?!!” I exclaimed.
Lots of raised voices and shouting amongst themselves, I decided to shut up; what could I do…the bus was finished here and that was that. A few notes of cash were handed to me from the bus conductor… “this will be enough to get you the rest of the way….”
…and was it enough?? Was it heck!
All this resulted in my first chance encounter with a girl from Lusaka, Liza. Like me she was put on the wrong bus, and like me, now had to make her own way to Lilongwe. Having a bit of company in these situations always takes the edge off…together we could bitch and moan about the stupidity of these bus systems and all the people that work for them! …and so off we headed together.
It wasn’t terrible; a taxi to the border, another taxi on the other side to take us to the buses, and then a two hour bus journey, had us arriving into Lilongwe just after nightfall. One final short taxi ride later, and we were at a downtown lodge that Liza stays in whenever she visits the city.
“Is this the street?” – I asked as we pulled up. I looked around, and had I not been with Liza, I would definitely have felt slightly intimidated. Who am I kidding…even with her there I was questioning the entire scenario! I mean how well did I even know this girl, where exactly was I, do I really trust that I should be here? These are all the silly questions that run through your mind. But when it’s night time and you’re in an unfamiliar country, you’ve been travelling for 24 hours, and you rock up to a bit of a sketchy looking street – your mind can certainly run away with you. In the end you just kind of shrug it off and crack on.
“Sure is.” – she answered with a smile. Out we got and into the lodge we went.
Of course it was all fine. I loved hanging out with Liza and getting to know her. A 25 year old girl with her own business back in Lusaka selling clothes. That’s why she comes to Lilongwe, to buy the product.
The next morning we got up and took a walk around. The place definitely seemed a lot better in the daylight hours, I actually quite liked it…but man was there a lot of people buzzing about!
This is where me and Liza said our goodbyes before going our separate ways (sadly I haven’t got any pictures of Liza to share with you – she was a gorgeous girl though).
This all leads me to chance encounter number 2; The four guys from South Africa! These guys were funny. They’d travelled overland on bus straight from Jo’burg to Lilongwe – it took them 36 hours! – Blimey! And they just so happened to be staying at the same lodge me and Liza were staying in.
We got to chatting over breakfast, turns out they were heading to the lake just as I was. Having travelled extensively around Africa, they were a fountain of knowledge for me. I’d had it in my head that I would bus it up that day to Nkhata Bay, the small amount of research I had done into Malawi resulted in me opting here as my go to destination on the lake.
“Yeah you won’t get there til crazy late!” – they advised as I was telling them my plans.
After the long arsed journey I’d had the previous day, the idea of being sat on another long bus journey for an entire day really wasn’t all that appealing.
“We’re headed to Senga Bay, a couple of hours drive away, and on the way to Nkhata Bay,” they told me…. “come with for the night and then head up tomorrow,” they suggested.
Ah screw it! Let’s do that.
So off I went, gatecrashing their blokes getaway holiday to join them in Senga Bay. I’d not even heard of this place so I just saw it as a bonus that I would get to see a different part of the lake that I’d never intended, or even known about, to visit.
The buses work on a “we leave when the bus is full” system – this can take an hour, it can take two hours! Basically it takes however long it damn well takes for the bus to be full…and by full I mean crammed in to within an inch of your life! Any small gap you did find would soon become home to some insanely bulked up bag of goods someone is transporting somewhere; or dinner for the night…a live chicken!
After a small cuffuffle with the driver and having to swap buses – yeah…I know! – we were on our way. It was a nice drive taking us from the city, and through the mountains. Destination, Salima. A small, pleasant town just a short distance from the lake. From here just a quick half hour taxi brought us to Senga Bay…
…“I’ll have a beer please” – I said with a stupidly large smile on my face as we rocked up to the beach bar of our new digs for the night. It had taken me four buses, 5 taxis, and 45 hours of my life to get me here from Livingstone, but now I had arrived at Lake Malawi…and shit was I happy! – and I wanted a beer!
The guys had been right, if i’d have decided to stick to my original plans of heading to Nkhata Bay that day, instead of being sat on the beach looking out over the lake and enjoying a few crisp cold beers, i’d still be sat on a cramped hot bus, and would be for a lot more hours to come. Had I not been put on the wrong bus in Lusaka, I’d not have met Liza who brought me to the downtown lodge, I’d not met the guys, and well…you see where I’m going with this. I just love stuff like this….the ripple effect. When the thing that you think is ruining your plans is actually the gateway to creating something even better; life works in mysterious ways ya know. A similar serious of events happened like this when I was in India 5 months ago – and that turned out amazingly!
Still one more chance encounter to be met as a result of this chain of events…
The next day I would be saying goodbye to the guys and heading up alone to Nkhata Bay for a few days. Now, back when I was in Livingstone I had been told of a backpackers called Butterfly Space, it looked nice; overlooking the bay, comes recommended – so that’s where I’d decided I would head. In between, however, I had met four guys from South Africa who were experts on their home continent, along with places to stay throughout…
“You need to stay at ‘Mayoka Village’ when you get there” – was their advice. They had stayed there before, they knew the owners, (as did, as I later learnt, most backpackers and volunteers who travelled within the same vicinity) and they even called ahead for me to make sure there was availability.
Sweet! Let’s go there.
They weren’t wrong, again. This place was something pretty special…
I had been looking for a place to be able to just stop and chill for a few days, unwind, clear myself from the constant mayhem of getting from a to b to c…this place would serve me quite well I thought.
It was about day 2 that I would meet my next and final chance encounters; Tim and Matt – and it was with these two that I would spend the rest of my travels getting me to Nairobi.
“Is anyone heading to Mzuzu today?” I asked around the dormitory this particular morning. I was contemplating cutting my time in Nkhata Bay short by a day and heading to Mushroom Farm in Livingstonia, I’d been told about it the evening before as “not to be missed.”
“Nope” was the reply I got from the two guys that were in there; “we only just got here last night!”
I started explaining about Mushroom Farm, but also that I needed to get to Mbeya, Tanzania, in time for the train that travels just twice a week to Dar Es Salam, making it today or never that I left for Mushroom Farm. Like most things I was encountering, it wasn’t a straight forward journey getting to Livingstonia and would take a fair few hours. The morning was kicking in now; I wasn’t packed, hadn’t paid my bill yet – did I really have the energy to rush around now. The answer to that was…No! So I stayed.
Later that day I got to chatting to the two guys from the dormitory (I’m guessing you’ve figured out by now these guys were Tim and Matt). They’d met back in Zambia and were both headed north, so had decided to travel together until their paths parted.
“We’re going to be headed to Mushroom Farm in a few days and then catching the Wednesday train from Mbeya,” – and I was welcomed to join them.
I battled between wanting to get to Nairobi in time for a weekend, and liking the sound of company on the road for a while, and the chance to see Mushroom Farm. In reality would I ever come back to Malawi, shouldn’t I make the most of it whilst I’m here – plus the visa was a whooping US$75, shouldn’t I milk the shit out of such an expensive visa! (Can you believe up until a year ago the visa for Malawi had been FREE!!!! – sods law dude!).
So yeah…you guessed it…I stayed, and I’m so glad that I did…
Me and the guys had a blast for just over a week together, before saying goodbye in Nairobi. I’m sure if I’d have stuck to my original time schedule and had left that day I still would have had a great time and met people along the way, but I’m almost certain it just wouldn’t have been the same. The places that we stayed following on from here were all pretty quiet with not many people around to meet. Plus the three of us just kinda got on really well…I felt like big sis 🙂 Also, Mushroom Farm was incredible, and asides the final road taking us up the mountain being bloody horrific -it wasn’t a road it was a path of rocks! – and there not actually being a way up or down besides paying someone to get in the back of their ‘bucky,’ I would have been gutted if I’d have missed it.
Perched high up at the edge of the Rift Valley we watched the views over the lake as the sun set behind us, and we woke up the next morning to watch the sunrise in front of us from the same spot.
We went for a hike around waterfalls and caves, scrambling up and down between trees and rocks. As I was advised those few days before; Mushroom Farm really was a “not to be missed.”
So yeah, that’s it guys; these were my three chance encounters that I feel made a huge difference to my time travelling across Africa. All three of them offered me friendship and unexpected experiences; and had it not been for the events that lead up to my first encounter; the delayed bus, being put on the wrong bus – then the rest of it simply would never have happened.
So next time you’re cursing a pain in the arse situation, be patient…something pretty cool may just well come from it 🙂